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Asylum alternative: the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children

By the late 1870s civic leaders were questioning the role of asylums and orphanages in the care of neglected children. States began establishing public schools with cottages on the grounds. 

The State Public School in Owatonna, c.1906.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children operated from 1886 to 1947. The campus is one of the most intact examples of a state cottage school standing in the United States and is significant on a national level.

By the late 1870s many civic leaders were questioning the role of asylums and orphanages in the care of neglected children. A new solution to the problem blended the institutionalizing and placing-out of orphans. States began establishing public schools with cottages on the grounds. These schools kept children out of almshouses, made them productive members of society, and placed them with adoptive families.

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The Minnesota State Public School was established in 1885 on the cottage model. Its goal was to remove children from almshouses and place them in a wholesome setting, separate from the dangers of their home.

The school was influenced by the first of its kind, which had been established in Michigan. John Foster, who was superintendent of the Michigan school, traveled to Owatonna to advise on construction. His assistant Galen Merrill became superintendent of the school in Owatonna. For two years the original structures of the school were built, including the administration building, several cottages, a hospital, schoolhouse, and granary. Handsome lawns and gardens were also added to the grounds.

The majority of children who resided at the school were not orphans. The children came to the state school through the orders of county probate judges. The school wanted to provide long-term care, but to place-out young men and women as quickly as possible. The average length of time at Owatonna, through most of its history, was around seven months. Once this brief time in Owatonna had improved the children’s mental outlook, behavior, and health, they could be placed in a home environment. This was accomplished through an adoption—the preferred outcome—or through an indenture contract under which the state reached an agreement with a family to support the child.

The school employed a team of agents to comb the state, seeking and evaluating potential homes, then returning to assess the status of the child on an annual basis. Many of the placements were not successful. Some children were abused by their new families.

The children at the school were typically aged three to fourteen years old. No child over sixteen years old was permitted to stay. Sixty percent of the wards were boys and over half had two living parents. Most of the children were of Scandinavian or German descent, though a small number were American Indian and African American.

Wards lived in cottages of thirty to forty children. Each cottage was supervised by matrons. The state school maintained a large farm, supplying the dining room with fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and meat. It also served as a workplace for the older children. Children had regular classroom studies from kindergarten through eighth grade. Unlike most private orphanages, the Owatonna school was secular in orientation.

The Progressive Era influenced the school. Merrill attended a 1909 White House Conference on the care of dependent children. He became involved in legislation and conferences, always advocating for the cottage system at the Owatonna State School. His belief in the value of the strenuous life and physical activity also changed the school. A gymnasium was constructed and outdoor activities became part of the school’s programming.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the school grew. It eventually had sixteen cottages and added a laundry, bakery, water tower, and power plant. The farm produced much of the food needed for the student population, with a granary, icehouse, root cellar, and greenhouse.

In 1934 Galen Merrill died and was succeeded by Mendus Velve. Velve ended the school’s indentured service program. He brought in child psychologists and additional staff for preschool children. Velve also tempered the harsh regime of discipline that had evolved during Merrill’s last years.

During the late 1930s and into the 1940s the number of children at the school steadily declined. In 1947 the school closed. Its property was transferred to the Owatonna State School, which educated mentally-disabled persons.

Between 1886 and 1947, 10,635 children passed through the Minnesota State School for Dependent and Neglected Children. Over its sixty-one years of operation, the institution shaped the lives of children and families across the state. It provided a temporary home for young people faced with the problems of family destitution, domestic abuse, disease, and death.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.